Q&A: It’s all gone pear-shaped

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we pare back the pair vs pare confusion…

Q: Hey, you know the story of Noah’s Ark?
A: Yes, of course.
Q: And how many more animals wanted to get on board, but Noah could only pick two?
A: Um. Okay.
Q: So once he’d paired them back, along came the flood and he just had to hope he had a male and female of each animal.
A: Going to stop you right there.
Q: It’s okay, I’m not going to go into the details of how they checked the genders.
A: No, we mean that we should stop you because you’ve said “paired them back”. This isn’t correct.
Q: Of course it is – cut it down to be just pairs remaining!
A: Sure, that may work in this story of animals going in two-by-two, hurrah… But it’s actually “to pare something back”.
Q: Ah. Oops. Why?
A: Well, it’s just purely on definition. “Pare” means to trim or cut away the outer edges. It’s where we get paring knives from.
Q: I get my paring knives from IKEA.
A: Anyway, as you hopefully realise now, you can “pare back” a number of things in many contexts. For example, “We had too many entrants, so we’re going to pare back the numbers with a qualifying phase.”
Q: Do you need the “back” part, or can you just say “we’re going to pare the numbers”?
A: In that example, “pare back” seems to be the accepted form. However, “pare” is used solo, as well as saying “pare down” or “pare off” – often when describing food.
Q: There sure are a lot of similar sounding “pair” words out there…
A: Fair point. Depending on your accent, you have “pair” and “pare” as well as “pear”, “peer” and even “pier”!
Q: They don’t all sound the same.
A: No, not identical. Although, the flatter vowel sounds of a New Zealand accent will make them all very similar.
Q: Must be quite a lot of “pare pressure” to choose the correct one.
A: You’re hilarious.
Q: So with that knife from earlier, you could pare down a pair of pears for your peers on a pier?
A: Again, hilarious. Yes, you certainly could.
Q: I think it’s time to disappear.
A: It would appear so.

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!

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